In the 2000s, I avoided the Jak series for pretentious reasons; the 12-year-old me thought that cartoony platformers were a hangover from previous generations, and only showed interest in games that were superficially grown-up. Sly Racoon, Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter were kids’ games. The future lay with Dante, Tidus and that nameless bloke who couldn’t talk from GTA III. But now that every cell in my body has been replaced and I’m technically a different human, I feel guilty for steering away from the missing link in Naughty Dog’s evolution from an anthropomorphic bandicoot to Nathan Drake. So, seeing that it’s available for PS4 download on the PSN – and at a ridiculously cheap price – I decided to give it a whirl.
It begins with short cut-scene; in a juvenile fantasy land, two friends travel to “misty mountain” – against their local wise sage’s orders – to have a little explore. They oversee a bit of mischievous ancient sorcery by two mysterious hooded figures, run back to tell the wise old sage, but one of them falls into a pool of “dark eco” and turns into ottsel (that’s a hybrid of otter and weasel, obviously). Wise old sage – Samos, his name’s Samos so I’ll call him that – scolds them, and sends them on their adventure to reverse the spell. Our human protagonist is Jak, and his otter-weasel sidekick is Daxter.
After a tutorial stage, the structure of the game presents itself. It’s an open world, made up of different and unique lands. In order to progress, the player has to undertake various tasks in each world to collect “power cells”. These little gizmos power whatever technological means is used to transport us to the next realm. The tasks in each land vary: from simply buying a power cell from an NPC to fighting giant carnivorous plants and navigating near-dark mazes. There’s even a jolly fisherman who asks you to fish for a power cell.
It’s listed as an “open world platformer” on Wikipedia, but I’d pluralise that into “open worlds”. Yes, you can travel back and forth between the various lands, but the real exploration of the game is in getting to know each stage – its various levels, hiding places, secret passages and concealed rooms. Whether it’s a harmless and relaxed beach or an intimidatingly frustrating spider-cave, each level is nuanced, colourful, unique and challenging in its own way.
As a kid I remember going to jungle-gyms – huge ones – with about four floors of rope swings, ball pits and padded platforms for climbing and balancing. There were vertical drop slides and zip wires to take you to new areas. You could spend all day exploring the place, if my rose-tinted memory serves me correctly. What Jak and Daxter does is provide about ten of these jungle-gyms to explore, each one with a new theme, new challenges, characters, enemies, and objects to interact with.
This awakens the inner-child, but that being said, it’s tough. The Last of Us and Uncharted never infuriated me as much as parts of Jak, and I don’t remember Crash ever being this hard. There’s a section at the end with a bridge made up of different coloured tiles. If you step on a red tile, all the red tiles drop. If you land on a blue, the same happens to that colour. It’s very difficult to strategize where to go first try, because the bridge turns a corner, so you’re blind to half of it. It’s a game of trial and error (for me anyway, but I’m openly shit at games) so if you don’t mind an abundance of stress beforehand, it’s extremely satisfying and rewarding when you finally solve the timings and puzzles.
There a few more games in the series; apparently, the story gets a bit dark. I can’t imagine how this could happen, because there wasn’t really a narrative in this one, just a vague conflict to give the adventure a purpose. I’ve never really gone for games without a strong story; that’s why I never joined the world of online death matches. But this one reawakened the kid-gamer in me who, when he wasn’t out in ball-pits, was stressing over the first Rayman. And if the sequels actually have a story, I might just check them out – gives me an intellectual reason to carry on being a stressed-out kid.